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Return to Salt Spring Island

I've returned to Salt Spring Island over and over and over again--at least in my mind. After you read the article below, which I wrote for the New York Post, you'll see why I dream of going back. Unfortunately, the piece ran the weekend before 9/11, so I'm pretty sure that its impact was compromised. I'd sure like to rectify that. Soon!

As our seaplane splashes down and taxis over the blue-green water like a skipping rock towards the Salt Spring Island dock, I feel as if we’re skimming our way into a postcard. The largest of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, located in the sheltered waters between Vancouver and the U.S. mainland, Salt Spring’s 180-square kilometers are hilly and lush with fir and arbutus trees, its dense fern-carpeted forests creeping all the way down to the rugged shoreline. In town, vibrant flower baskets seem to hang from every streetlamp, storefront and home.

We’ll be staying at award-winning Hastings House, a luxurious country house hotel perched on a bluff at the tip of the harbor we just landed in. “Is Hastings House as great as they say?” I ask one of the four other passengers aboard the float plane. “Oh dear God, yes!” he responds in a single exhale.

Hastings House turns out to be a casually luxurious retreat on 25 acres, with guest rooms and suites scattered among an 11th century Sussex-style manor house, quaint cottages and a reconstructed barn. The white buildings, with their warm wood trim and stonework, are offset by flower and vegetable gardens, meadows which are home to several geese and goats as well as four-horned Jacob’s Sheep, and a breath-taking vista of the water and coast. We check out our cozy two-room suite with its fireplace and French doors, which during the 19th century functioned as the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s post house where trading was conducted on the honor system. Then my travel mate and I settle into Adirondack chairs on the lawn to soak up the sun’s rays, as well as the sudden sense of serenity which has settled on us like a fine mist. We pluck a couple of wild cherries from the large tree to our left and gaze out to the sailboats, motorboats and yachts anchored in Ganges Harbour.

Ganges is the focal point of this island and its 10,000 full-time residents, many of whom are artists or musicians. While most of Salt Spring’s restaurants and art galleries are found here, numerous artists’ studios are scattered to both the north and the south. Deciding that the self-guided studio tour will instantly introduce us to both the island and its inhabitants, we head out by car, after some delicious oyster shooters, fresh fish and chips, and a pint of local Canadian beer at Moby’s Marine Pub. There’s only one main road in town, marked with a yellow centerline, so we can’t get lost. Even better, there are no street signals at all, save the one at Big Tree Furniture Gallery, indicating whether the gallery displaying oversized wooden furniture and sculpture is receiving visitors or not. (If the light’s green, you’re welcome to go in.)

We plan to visit at least eight studios, which we’ve carefully marked on our numbered map. As it turns out, we only get to three, delayed by the work and friendliness of, initially, artist Gary Cherneff at Stone Ridge Pottery, who with his wife (an artisan now doing floral design) homesteaded their wooded property 26 years ago, and thereafter a family of deer at the Tufted Puffin gallery. We had just been admiring multi-colored chiseled glass boxes crafted by former rock-n-roll drummer Jerry Ringrose, when we spotted the mother. By the time we’d driven off, gallery owner and resident artist David Jackson had introduced us to her newest fawn, as well as its two velvet-antlered brothers and an uncle, all of whom walked fearlessly up to him, his Golden Labrador and us.

The next morning we try our hand at sea kayaking. The water is glassy, the kayak forgiving. Feeling like pros, we paddle past a baby river otter grooming itself on the bank of one of the small islands that dot Ganges Harbour, and stop to admire the mottled harbor seals, several of whom are pregnant, draped over a rock outcropping. On the way back, we pass a tiny island with a faded blue wooden mobile home perched on what basically amounts to pile of rocks measuring about 50-feet in diameter. “That’s Ebo’s house,” says our guide, Sea Otter Kayaking owner Bill Elford. “He supposedly bought the island for five thousand [Canadian] dollars [which equals about $3,500 in the U.S.].” It turns out that the original owner had specified that nothing could ever be built on the island. So Ebo bought the trailer, lashed it to a couple of pontoons, registered it as a boat, and floated it onto the island at high tide. Now he lives there full-time, boating in whatever water he needs, and using solar panels to power his TV and lights.

That counter-culture mentality is evident across the island. Though a handful of newcomers have built 12,000 square-foot mansions (one even commutes to work from his personal helipad to Vancouver in just eight minutes), more modest wooden dwellings—and even a few tree houses—are closer to the norm. So are farms, which produce everything from hay and sheep to organic vegetables, herbs and flowers. It turns out that in Canada you only need to sell $2,500 worth of product a year to qualify for farm status, and the enormous property tax breaks that go along with that.

At the Saturday market, all those local farmers, along with the island’s artisans—and even a mystery writer—pedal their wares in the town square. While live music wafts through the air, you can buy everything from sheepskin slippers and rugs to stone sculptures worth thousands. Planning a gourmet picnic? Don’t miss the homemade breads and cheeses (particularly David Wood’s sheep cheeses made with milk from his own flock, and Moonstruck Cheese’s Baby Blue, a camembert style cheese with a hint of blue) or the local berries.

 

Then drive up to Mount Maxwell, for an inspiring 1,957-foot high view past the farmlands at the southern end of the island out to the San Juan Islands, or down to the wooded Ruckle Provincial Park, one of 18 provincial parks on the island, where you can hike along beachside trails and camp overnight.

That afternoon, my travel companion and I head out with skipper Jay Small, owner of Something Fishy charters. We don’t have time for salmon fishing, even though Jay promises that in August and September when the Pinks and Cohos are running, the success rate nears 100 percent. Instead, we opt to cruise out to a nearby island where a couple of bald eagles and their “little one,” already two-feet tall, nest. We take two frozen perch with us, which we throw in the water under the watchful gaze of one of the white-headed adults perched high in a Douglas Fir. The fish may be dead, but that doesn’t deter the majestic bird one bit. Soaring down, the eagle flies over the bait (which floats just 10-12 feet from our boat), banks left, and then swoops down, grabbing his target in its talons. My heart is in my throat as we motor home. Simply spotting a bald eagle in the distance is inspiring. This is downright memorable.

“I don’t know how this trip could be any more perfect,” my friend announces as we sip cocktails back at Hastings House. We get our answer at dinner, a five-course extravaganza created by manager and chef Marcel Kauer. Overlooking the harbor, its white boats aglow in the setting sun, we feast on halibut ceviche with mango salsa, garlic seared lobster and deep sea scallops on Hastings House garden greens, and rack and loin of local venison, while sipping local British Columbia wines (including a Burrowing Owl 1998 Cabernet and a Blue Mountain 1998 Pinot) which prove surprisingly good. (Dinner, which costs $80 per person, is open to non-guests on a first-come, first-served reservation basis. Hotel guests are automatically guaranteed a table.) That night, we amble down to the Tree House Café, where we catch the last few numbers being performed by local jazz singer Simone in the outside patio.

On the ferry the next day, I realize that we’ve missed the two nine-hole golf courses, and the public tennis courts, as well as hiking, biking, horseback riding, beach-combing and the basketry workshops. We haven’t tried diving or the day spas, which offer everything from relaxation massages to body wraps. There’s no escaping it . . .  we’ll have to return. I can’t wait.

 

* To get to Salt Spring Island, fly to Vancouver, then take a seaplane (either SEAir (800) 447-3247  or Harbour Air Seaplanes Ltd. (800) 665-0212) or a ferry (250) 386-3431 or www.bcferries.com.  Salt Spring Island Visitor Information Centre: (866) 216-2936; www.saltspringtoday.com. Hastings House, from $275-$415 [U.S. dollars] per night; (800) 661-9255; www.hastingshouse.com.